The Interesting History of the Anchor

Did you know that the anchor's design hasn't changed a lot since the Archaic period? Find out more cool facts about this vital device.

The Interesting History of the Anchor

An anchor is definitely one of the most important devices on any ship. But, at the same time, it is also one of the most boring things on the vessel, mainly because its design hasn’t changed in centuries.

Before the invention of a “true anchor” people would use stones and sacks of sand to help their ships stand still. The Chinese might have created the first device that looks like a classic anchor back in 2,000 B.C., but the first records of an anchor with two hooked arms were found on Greek coins that date back to 750 B.C.

There are quite a few interesting episodes in the history of the anchor, so make sure to keep on reading.

The History of the Anchor

The First “Anchor”

At first, people invented boats. These small vessels could be easily dragged onto the shore, so there was no need in fixating them in the actual water. If for some reason, it wasn’t possible to relocate the boat to the shore, people would tie it to something (like a tree or a big stone).

Soon, shipbuilding evolved. Tiny boats turned into beautiful big ships that could still be tied to something sturdy on the shore if the sailors wanted to ‘park’ the watercraft. But as people began to sail farther away from land, the need for a tool that would keep the ship still in the middle of nowhere arose.

In the Bronze Age, seafarers created the first “anchor”. It was made of a rope and a rock that had to be big enough to keep the ship still. Years later, the Greeks started using large sacks of sand, baskets full of rocks, and even wooden logs filled with lead to secure the vessels in the sea.

All these methods got the job done, but there were certain nuances. No matter how heavy the “anchor’ was, it would still slightly drift. Sailing with a giant sack is not always convenient and in a lot of cases, the seafarers had to have a lot of those baskets or sacks to provide extra stability.

The Invention of a "True" Anchor

Even though the first true anchors (the ones that hold the ship still by shape, not only by weight) could have been invented by the Chinese in 2,000 B.C. or in Egypt way back in 6,000 B.C., the first records of an anchor in a familiar design were found on Syrian and Greek coins (750 B.C.).

These anchors (called ”common”, “old-fashioned”, and a “kedge” nowadays) had two hooked arms and a stock. It’s fascinating how little the design of an anchor has changed throughout the years. The devices used nearly three thousand years ago already looked a lot like the anchors that we use today!

However, in 400 B.C., the Greeks came up with another version of an anchor. They would drill a hole in the center of a large flat stone and then fixate a triangular eyebolt at the top. The anchor looked like a mushroom and that’s what these devices are still called nowadays.

All these types of anchors would still use a rope. Oddly enough, the world’s first anchor chain was created by the Britons before these people invented an actual anchor. The Britons would secure heavy stones to iron links because they had no strong rope that they could use. The weight of the stones and the links were so great that it even affected the ship design of that time.

The Discovery of Ancient Anchors

The presence of an ‘old-fashioned’ anchor on Greek coins certainly proves that such devices have been in use for thousands of years. But a few actual ancient anchors were found only in 1930 when a lake near Rome was drained.

Two stunning anchors that date back to the times of Caligula (around 40 A.D.) were discovered. One of them was a 900-lbs “old-fashioned’ anchor made out of iron. A cotter pin was used to hold the stock in place. It looks like the Romans would simply remove the stock and lay the anchor flat whenever they weren’t using it.

The other anchor had a similar shape but was made of a completely different material. It had a lead stock and the shank and arms were made out of oak. The lead and wood anchor was lighter than an all-iron device.

Some ships would actually have a few anchors of different types – the lighter ones were used when stopping at the Nile Delta to prevent the anchor from settling too deeply into the delta mud.

Anchoring Advancements

The design of an anchor didn’t advance a lot over the millennia. In fact, practically the exact same “old-fashioned” anchor that was invented in around 750 B.C. was still being used in the 15th century. With that being, there definitely were a few ways to make the usage of an anchor a bit easier.

  • In the 16th century, seafarers used the first capstan. It is a vertical-axed rotating machine that can assist the crew in various anchoring operations. With a capstan, the process of releasing, holding, and manipulating the device was greatly simplified.
  • During that same time, more attention got paid to the anchor scope. The shipmen realized that more scope means less vertical strain and this, in its turn, decreases the chances of unsetting the anchor.
  • Until the beginning of the 19th century, the absolute majority of anchors were still being secured with the help of a hemp rope. Such navigators as Cook and Bougainville proposed iron chains for that matter. And, finally, in 1809, one of the ships of the British Royal Navy got equipped with the first modern anchor chain.

The Styles of Anchors

  • We have already talked about the “old-fashioned” anchor that didn’t change a lot throughout the years. Nowadays, the kedge is usually used as the second anchor onboard most yachts. It is relatively lightweight and easy to manage.
  • A “stockless” or “patent” anchor was patented in 1821. As the name suggests, the device doesn’t have a stock which makes it easier to stow and handle. The two flukes pivot on the same perpendicular to the shank. Thanks to the design it can lie flat with the flukes embedded in the marine floor; it is also capable of free falling into the water a lot faster than other types.
  • The first “mushroom” anchors have been invented in Ancient Greece, but the more modern version appeared only in the 1850s. Such an anchor is shaped like an upside-down mushroom. It is mainly used as a permanent mooring for lightships.

Modern-Day Anchors

The Bügel is an anchor created in 1986. It is considered to be the first new-generation anchor as it pioneered a novel configuration that involves a semi-circular roll-bar.

The Spade, Sword, Raya, SARCA, Bulwagga, and Rocna are a few other anchor types created in recent years. But the majority of them have way too many cons to be adopted by the majority of shipmen.


The history of the anchor is a few millennia old, but very few metamorphoses have happened to the device during this period. In fact, on a large scale, practically nothing has changed in the true anchor’s design in these years.

And that is, perhaps, the most fascinating fact about this old but trustworthy device.